Wall Street Feminism

Liza Featherstone (ed.), False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton

Verso, 192pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781784784614

reviewed by Claire Potter

When Hillary Clinton became the first female Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States on June 6 2016, the theme was women’s history. Secretary Clinton traced her political forebears back to Seneca Falls in 1848, giving a special nod to her mother, who was born the day that women’s suffrage became legal. Clinton’s historic victory was not, she said, ‘about one person,’ but for all the people, past and present, who had worked for this victory. But the debate in the United States among some feminists is: was this milestone for ‘women’ also a victory for feminism?

The 14 women and one man who contributed to False Choices, a collection of essays edited by New York-based journalist Liza Featherstone, are among the feminists who say no. Six months ago, in ‘Why This Socialist Feminist Is Not Voting for Hillary’ (The Nation, January 5 2016), Featherstone, a socialist feminist, pointed out that a Hillary Clinton presidency might be ‘uplifting’ for girls, but will do little to interrupt the contraction of resources and opportunities for most Americans. In False Choices, film scholar Catherine Liu argues that this uplift also serves elite interests. ‘The narrative of Hillary’s ascension to the presidency – America is always getting more progressive, we just had a black president and now we are getting a woman’ is comforting. ‘But such stories not only mask the reality of neoliberalism, they sustain it.’

False Choices asks whether the decision Americans were offered – between a feminist and a socialist, between the first woman and a man (who arguably would have been the first Jew to be a major party nominee) – were the only options. More interestingly, it offers insights into what kind of feminism Clinton’s policy history represents. The policies that she helped to establish as First Lady marked a turn to austerity, an intensification of mass incarceration, privatisation of education, mismanagement of the campaign for national healthcare, and the signing of two bills that intensified federal homophobia. Clinton supporters have three ways of responding to this conversation: the Clintons had to compromise with the GOP; she wasn’t the policy maker – Bill was; and DONALD TRUMP, OH MY GOD!

Collectively, the authors lay out the arguments about Clinton’s past that help us predict the American future she could easily map out if the Democratic left does not hold together beyond this summer. It is a future that, the authors predict, will put feminism in the active service of corporate politics. If her primary night speech in Brooklyn last month is any indication, Clinton understands her nomination to be the culmination of the American feminist struggle, and feminism – as defined by her electoral achievements – to be a uniquely American contribution to world history.

So what? Many Clinton supporters say exactly that, and swear on Facebook that they will ‘hold her feet to the fire’ after they get her elected. Yet this call for a unified feminist front to elect Clinton is troubling, recalling as it does the naiveté of early second wave politicians like Bella Abzug, who assumed there was only a series of short leaps between her election, flooding Washington with women politicians, and a collective effort among women to end war and poverty forever. If the history teaches us anything, it is, as Featherstone and Amber A’Lee Frost point out in their introduction, that feminism is not about promoting Team Vagina. Feminism is ‘a set of political ideas, or several sets of political ideas, that are often wildly at odds. This book itself advances a vociferous disagreement with the type of feminism that has produced and sustained Hillary Rodham Clinton.’

Most of the savvy, liberal-to-leftwing women I know would be insulted at the notion that they were promoting a woman just because she is a woman. But why should this woman, whose foreign and domestic policies have made life difficult for so many women around the world, carry the mantle of feminism? And what feminism is being promoted when we hitch the train of the American women’s movement to Hillary Clinton’s market-driven philosophies? Featherstone and Frost foresee an immediate future in which a newly respectable centrist feminism ‘is used rhetorically as a cudgel against any sort of left politics which might actually help the majority of women.’

As the essays in the book make clear, Hillary Clinton has revived the spirit of an early 20th-century Progressive feminism at a moment when radical feminism – in the form of #BlackLivesMatter and other grassroots movements is acquiring a significant voice among a weary public sick of exploitation, corporate greed, debt and war. In contrast, Clinton represents a centrist wing of the Democratic Party that believes corporate prosperity and methods emanating from capitalism float all boats. Can we trust her to stand up for pay equity, unionisation and a living wage? History says no. As journalist Kathleen Geier describes it, Clinton failed to stand up to anti-union and anti-woman policies while serving on the board of Walmart, and ‘has never been a reliable champion of the economic interests of working people.’ This, and Clinton’s close ties to Wall Street, are important not because she is uniquely corrupt but because she is not. The ‘outsized influence of the financial sector is . . . a structural problem affecting the entire Democratic Party,’ Geier writes.

At the same time as Clinton, her husband and her daughter have enriched themselves in political life: if elected, Clinton will be one of the wealthiest presidents in American history. At the same time, she has worked to hold the poor to an exacting moral standard. As social scientists Francis Fox Piven and Fred Block write, replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with the temporary workfare programs in 1996 was a form of disciplinary governance that is part of Clinton’s core philosophy. Administration policies forwarded by ‘Billary,’ as their associates referred to the Clinton partnership, yanked the social safety net out from under American women and children in the name of eradicating the so-called culture of poverty. The workfare provision in the 1996 legislation employed women at sub-minimum wage jobs that featured job ‘training’ such as getting to work on time and picking up trash. The work requirement thus eliminated the capacity of women to pursue education and skills training that had moved generations of single mothers out of poverty.

This is, in part, what Clinton means by saying she has devoted her life to helping women and children, and she is sincere: historian Donna Murch calls this ‘governmental feminism,’ the notion that the weak are best served when under the protection and discipline of the state. As Frost points out, ‘[t]he fight for children’s welfare is Hillary’s only claim to a legitimate leftist political history and certainly her only claim to anything close to the deep end of the feminist pool.’ But sometimes helping women and children requires throwing some of them under the bus. The Clintons’ record of education achievement in the Arkansas schools included implementing high-stakes teacher testing over the objection of the mostly black and female union, campaigning for mandatory school uniforms, and allowing student prayer. Arkansas also became a national leader in standardised testing of students. Between 1992 and 2000, the Clintons were leaders in the charter and school choice movement, as well as policies that would close schools that failed to show ‘real accountability for results.’

Like Hillary Clinton, feminism itself has a very mixed record on women and children, particularly if you start the clock ticking in the 19th century when, to paraphrase Frances Piven and Richard Cloward classic 1971 analysis, welfare policies were intended to regulate the poor, not eliminate poverty. As historian Linda Gordon has pointed out, until the New Deal, all feminist reformers understood poor women and their children should be ‘pitied but not entitled.’ Access to relief meant agreeing to moral scrutiny, and perhaps the removal of your children to orphanages and middle-class homes. New Deal reforms that established welfare, as labour historian Alice Kessler-Harris notes, structured programs to support the important national task of mothering white children, while women of colour and their children were expected to enter the labour force as soon as possible.

What intensifies concerns that Hillary Clinton may be a second wave feminist with a first wave heart is her lack of self-consciousness about how she, Bill and Chelsea have enriched themselves – and the multi-million dollar Clinton Foundation after 1998 by intertwining their political and the philanthropic lives. Goldman Sachs, for-profit Laureate University, and ‘campaign bundlers [who] also work, directly or indirectly, for the private prison industry’ are but a few entities that prey on the poor and give large sums of money to Clinton, Inc., as well as numerous other politicians. ‘Whether this is normal is something different from whether it is acceptable or ethical,’ writes sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom.

Feminists that have supported Secretary Clinton’s candidacy argue: that was then and this is now. Indeed Hillary Clinton the presidential candidate has come out against the excesses of for profit education, although not the fact of it; assures voters she will work to ‘rein in’ Wall Street; and will reverse mass incarceration. Yet one has to ask the question: would there have been a candidate Clinton without contributions from the industries she is now questioning? ‘Between 2010 and 2014, tax returns show that Laureate [University] paid Bill Clinton over $16 million dollars,’ Cottom writes. ‘Those payments were in addition to donations Leaureate made to the Clinton Foundation.’ Murch points to the complicity of Clinton’s elite African-American supporters – what scholar Keeanga–Yamahtta Taylor, following Amiri Baraka, has called ‘black faces in high places’ – in obscuring this marriage between the Democratic Party and Wall Street.

If Clinton supporters point to the overwhelming support for her candidacy among African-American voters, it is also well known a younger generation activated by #BlackLivesMatter and the fight against mass incarceration voted decisively for her opponent. It is also probably worth noting that when offered a black alternative in 2008, older African-Americans rejected Clinton too. Similarly, young white women seem to be pushing back on the notion that defending reproductive rights is feminism’s dominant priority. As journalist and Jezebel co-founder Maureen Tkacik notes, ‘The abortion lobby is arguably the only Democratic Party interest group the Clinton’s never fucked over, and the Democratic Party’s support for abortion rights in the face of the Republican `War on Women’ has become increasingly central to the party’s messaging.’

Reducing contemporary feminism’s priorities to defending Roe v. Wade has narrowed its appeal, and it has also not been particularly successful. Abortion and reproductive rights have been steadily eroded, and one might ask whether the cost of ‘borking’ Robert Bork in 1987 has made the Supreme Court a costly battleground for both parties. It certainly did not stem the tide of Constitutional originalism, and abortion has not proved a particularly effective rallying point for electing more feminists to office. ‘EMILY’s List has raised hundreds of millions of dollars since its 1985 founding, but its record is truly abysmal,’ Tkacik writes. In the 2006 midterms, the organisation spent $46 million on 30 House candidates; eight won. Furthermore, the PAC does not support state-level candidates who ‘actually influence abortion policy’ in state legislatures, where the greatest restrictions on access have been enacted.

Perhaps Clinton’s strongest claim to the Presidency in a time of war is her experience as Secretary of State, and here she has clearly outshone all other candidates. As journalist and sex worker Margaret Corvid points out, Clinton has worked hard to combat trafficking, a feminist priority in both the Republican and Democratic parties. But this is also an interesting place to see why Clinton might be attractive to Republicans alienated by the Donald Trump candidacy. Conflating voluntary and involuntary sex work under this label, as Clinton does, has an anti-immigrant tinge. In addition to reviving old feminist critiques of sex work, it attaches ‘a criminal label to migratory and economic behavior’ and ‘has resulted in policies that hurt girls and women.’

What contributes to putting women in motion to sell the only property they have, themselves are the interventionist policies Clinton promoted as Secretary of State in the Obama administration. Journalist Belen Fernandez’s account of the military coup in Honduras, which Obama and Clinton refused to label a military coup, even though the US ambassador at the time believed that it was one, put women and children at risk along with all other Hondurans. And Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy puts the United States in the position of killing some women and children in the name of saving them. As Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin recalls, although Clinton told the organisation as a Senator that she would ‘never put my people at risk,’ her vote for war did just that, ‘costing over a trillion dollars that could have been used for supporting women and children here at home,’ funding social programs, and killing thousands of US servicemen and women. Worse, Benjamin points out, ‘Clinton didn’t learn the main lesson from Iraq – to seek nonviolent ways to solve conflicts.’

So what’s the point of bringing all this up now? Why be a divider and not a uniter, when the political stakes have never been higher in recent United States history? The answer to that question is that the stakes include defining what feminism is, and what it is going to be, as one powerful woman seizes the mantle of feminism in a Presidential campaign. Does feminism stand for the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor? Does feminism believe students’ going into many thousands of dollars of debt for an online degree actually represents access to education? Is feminism a social justice movement or a test of moral fibre? Does feminism demand economic equality for all? Or is it an incrementalist programme that emphasises middle-class values and rights, while continuing to overcharge the poor for, and limit their access to, things that have been basic human rights in other industrialised democracies for generations: education, healthcare, housing, employment, and transportation?